Remember the pitcher who looked like the most dominant performer in the 2018 postseason? Nate Eovaldi provided a tantalizing reminder of that version of himself to conclude the 2020 season.
On Wednesday, in his final start of a Red Sox campaign that has been both brief and interminable, Eovaldi dissected the Orioles with ease. He commanded an overpowering four-pitch mix — chiefly high-90s four-seam fastballs and low-90s cutters, complemented by curveballs and splitters in his final innings— over the course of six shutout innings in a 9-1 Red Sox victory.
In his final four starts of the season, Eovaldi looked like the pitcher whom the Sox wanted to see when they signed him to a four-year, $68 million deal following the 2018 championship run. Over those outings, he allowed just two runs in 21 innings (0.86 ERA) while striking out 25 and walking just two.
“I was able to make the adjustments I needed to and I felt like I finished strong,” said Eovaldi.
With that finishing kick, the 2020 version of Eovaldi looked as good as he’s ever been. He ended the year with a 3.72 ERA – the second-best mark of his career – along with career-best rates in both strikeouts (9.7 per nine innings) and walks (1.3 per nine innings). His 7.4 strikeouts per walk ranked as the third-best ratio by a starter in Red Sox team history, behind only the back-to-back Cy Young seasons by Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000.
“I love watching him pitch. He’s attacking hitters, and just the way you set it up to be,” said Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “He’s got all these weapons to get people out.”
Yet the idea that Eovaldi possesses remarkable gifts is hardly new. Nor is the recognition that his elite talent often comes with a lament about the infrequency with which he’s able to deliver commensurate performances – a pattern that continued as Roenicke reflected on the pitcher’s season, including the three-week interruption for an injured list stint due to a calf strain.
“Just a shame,” Roenicke said twice about the pitcher’s time on the sidelines.
“Definitely unfortunate,” Eovaldi said of the injury.
For the 30-year-old, health remains an “if” proposition. His ability is that of the sort of mid-rotation presence the Red Sox will need if they hope to move beyond their non-competitive flail through the 2020 season, yet his inability to remain on the mound suggests that while there is reason for confidence in his ability, a team can’t commit to the notion of his reliability.
Perhaps it’s borderline impossible for a player who throws as hard – and with such effort – as Eovaldi to maintain durability as a starter. Perhaps his succession of injuries simply reflects the natural toll of pitching.
Regardless, the Red Sox now know what they have in the righthander as they move forward into the latter half of his contract – a pitcher with a gifted arm, capable of runs of dominance, but whose availability can’t be taken for granted. As the Red Sox build their pitching staff for next year, they may well do so with the knowledge that Eovaldi can be a strong contributor to it – but with the awareness that they will have to be prepared for the times when he is unavailable.
▪ Both the Red Sox rotation and lineup are finishing the year with a measure of consistency that eluded the team for most of the year. Eovaldi’s six shutout innings lowered the Red Sox rotation’s ERA to 2.89 over the team’s last 17 contests, a run during which the club is – not coincidentally – playing its best baseball of the season, forging a 10-7 mark.
▪ The lineup, meanwhile, wasted little time providing Eovaldi with all the support he’d need, scoring a pair of runs on three hits in the bottom of the first (an Alex Verdugo leadoff double and two-out RBI singles by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Plawecki). The Sox tacked on six more in the third, a rally punctuated by a three-run double by Rafael Devers. The contest marked the third straight in which the Sox had scored eight runs, a season-long streak for the team.
▪ Verdugo extended his hitting streak to 10 games with a first-inning double, making him one of seven players in the big leagues this year with multiple 10-game hitting streaks. He’s been the most consistent Red Sox hitter this year, explaining why Roenicke identified the outfielder prior to the game as the team’s most valuable player this year.
▪ The strong finishing run may boost the Sox out of last place, particularly given that the Orioles are in freefall. With two straight wins for the Sox over Baltimore at Fenway, the Sox are now within one game of the O’s in the battle for last; a sweep would leave the teams deadlocked – while potentially positioning Baltimore to jump ahead of the Sox in the draft, presuming that next year’s selection order is determined by the reverse order of teams' 2020 records.